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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 35-31

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to players 50-46, 45-41, and 40-36. These are players 35-31 on our list.

35. Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert was an unheralded recruit who originally signed with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. The last first-round pick from the MAC? Chris Kaman in 2003. Only after Ohio’s coach left, LeVert instead went to Michigan. He arrived in Ann Arbor at 6-foot-5, 165 pounds. A redshirt appeared obvious.

But LeVert forced his way into the lineup as a freshman. As a sophomore, he developed into an All-Big Ten second-teamer.

At one point during that season, Brian Cook of MGoBlog brought up a shortcoming: LeVert wasn’t attacking the rim and drawing fouls enough.

“But, like, wait a week and he’ll be better,” Cook quipped.

It barely registered as a joke. LeVert was improving that rapidly.

Unfortunately for LeVert, his career has since been dominated by significant injuries. The latest was a dislocated foot early last season. Before that, LeVert was generating plenty of Most Improved Player buzz.

LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive).

But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be.

LeVert has the work ethic. he has a good developmental infrastructure around him with the Nets. He just must stay healthy long enough to put everything together.
—Dan Feldman

34. Lauri Markkanen

There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be.

The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. In Markkanen’s final 10 games of last season — before he was shut down due to extreme fatigue and a bout of a rapid heart rate — he averaged 15.5 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting overall, 30 percent from three, and 7.7 boards a game. He was pretty average. Markkanen also has missed 27 percent of the Bulls games in his two seasons due to injuries (to be fair, those were fluke things, like his sprained elbow, not chronic things that would lead one to think of him as injury prone).

Markkanen is capable of more. If Markkanen can become a more consistent offensive force and better on the defensive end — he’s not a bad defender, he’s okay, but with his length and athleticism he should be a better rim protector — he can take over the role as the alpha on the Bulls. They need him to. Zach LaVine can go get buckets, but he is not a No. 1 option guy. Markkanen can be. Markkanen has the potential be an All-Star level player and the franchise cornerstone the Bulls need him to be. The question remains, can he reach that level and stay there?
—Kurt Helin

33. Damian Lillard

It’s been assumed that by the end of his most recent contract that Damian Lillard won’t be the player the Portland Trail Blazers need any longer. He’s already 30 years old, and the common refrain has been that point guards at or near six feet tall don’t age gracefully.

But like anything else, we must take both historical examples and understanding that we are in a new era of NBA basketball into consideration. This era is one where guys like Lillard are pioneering a 3-point shot that has stretched the limits of spacing on an NBA floor. Because of that, it’s entirely possible that Lillard ends up being more like late stage Jason Kidd then late-stage Chris Paul.

Kidd was 6-foot-4 and could play across multiple positions, but there’s a new geometry in the NBA that should aide Lillard. The dimensions of an NBA floor are being pushed to their limits as shooters get farther and farther away from the basket. As players adapt to this, passing lanes and scoring opportunities will continue to change.

With that in mind, Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason.

Superstar shifts are more likely to be unfortunate than successful. But Lillard is one of the most iron-willed players in the league, and he’s secure in both who he is and the cash he’s got in his pocket. If the need comes for him to find a new niche after a lost step or two, count on him to make it.
—Dane Delgado

 

32. Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert is underrated.

Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year.

Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. That’s so underappreciated.

Of course, none of this means Gobert will belong so high on this list at age 32. He’ll likely be past his peak in 2024.

But Gobert’s present-day production is higher than most realize. That gives him room to decline and remain quite good.

We’ll soon get a sense of how the Jazz value him long-term. Next summer, Gobert will be eligible for a super-max extension. I wouldn’t give him the full projected amount ($250 million over five years). I’d hesitate to give him even the smallest-allowable super-max projection ($155 million over five years). But remember, that extension would carry him through age 34.

At 32, Gobert has a much better chance of remaining a quality center.
—Dan Feldman

31. Stephen Curry

Did I miss something? I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38. Oh, and Steve Nash was an All-Star two weeks after his 38th birthday.

Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. After raising his scoring average to 28.2 points per game this postseason, there’s no signs of decline.

OK, the ankles. Yes, the ankles. There’s reason to worry that Curry’s wheels will deflate faster than the average NBA player, but even if Curry moves off the ball and becomes more of a spot-up shooter, I still think he’d stretch defenses to near half court. We’ve never seen a player like Curry who can launch from just about anywhere with the ball in his hands. But even if he can’t terrorize defenses with his lightning-quick handles and crab-like lateral movement, he’ll still impact the game at a high level simply by standing there beyond the arc. Just ask Miller, Allen and Nash about how that gravitational pull ages.
—Tom Haberstroh

Watch Eric Gordon’s 50-point night spark Houston win over Jazz on night Harden, Westbrook sit

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Eric Gordon scored a career-high 50 points to lead the short-handed Houston Rockets to a 126-117 victory over the Utah Jazz on Monday night despite playing without James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Danuel House Jr. added 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Austin Rivers also had 21 points as Houston handed the Jazz their first home loss since Dec. 9.

Gordon became the first Rockets player besides Harden to score 50 points in a game since Hakeem Olajuwon had 51 in January 1996, according to STATS. Harden has done it 23 times since then.

Donovan Mitchell scored 36 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 30, but Utah lost for just the third time in 22 games despite shooting 51% from the field.

Gordon had his first game with more than 30 points this season. His previous career best of 41 came against Oklahoma City on Jan. 23, 2009. The veteran guard stepped up and filled the scoring void with Harden, Westbrook and Clint Capela sitting out.

Harden missed his second straight game with a bruised left thigh. Capela (bruised right heel) and Westbrook (rest) sat out after playing Sunday against Denver.

Their absence had minimal impact on Houston’s offense early.

Gordon bookended an 11-0 run with a dunk and a 3-pointer to give the Rockets an 11-4 lead early in the first quarter. Houston stayed in front throughout the period.

The Jazz went ahead with a 13-2 run to open the second. Mitchell scored three baskets to fuel the spurt, and Mike Conley drove for a layup to cap it off.

Gordon provided a spark to help Houston regain the lead. He totaled 15 points in the second quarter and helped the Rockets close the first half on a 17-6 run to take a 59-46 lead into the break. Thabo Sefolosha started and finished the run by driving for a layup.

Utah trimmed the deficit to 72-66 midway through the third on consecutive 3-pointers from Bogdanovic, but got no closer. Rivers and House answered with back-to-back baskets to stop the rally. That sparked a 15-6 spurt that gave Houston an 87-72 lead near the end of the quarter.

Watch Buddy Hield score career-high 42, rally Kings from 27 down past Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS — Buddy Hield scored a career-high 42 points to help the Sacramento Kings rally from a 27-point deficit for a 133-129 overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night.

De'Aaron Fox scored 22 for the Kings, putting back the rebound of his intentionally missed free throw as part of a 33-11 run over the final 5:42 of regulation.

Andrew Wiggins had 36 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Timberwolves, who lost their 10th consecutive game.

With the Kings down three with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, Fox made his first free throw. He intentionally fired the second off the front of the rim, grabbed his own rebound and laid it in to tie the game with 3.6 seconds left.

Hield scored 18 points in the final 4:36 of regulation on a night that featured tributes to his childhood hero, Kobe Bryant. Fox scored 17 points in the second half and overtime. Nemanja Bjelica finished with 20 points.

The Timberwolves built their lead thanks to a franchise-record 23 3-pointers. Wiggins was 7 for 11 beyond the arc.

Robert Covington had 24 points and Karl-Anthony Towns added 23 for Minnesota. It was the first time three Timberwolves have scored 20 or more points in a game since Dec. 13.

To open the game, both teams honored Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash. Minnesota took an 8-second backcourt violation and Sacramento took a 24-second shot-clock violation on the ensuing possession. While taking the 8-second violation, Wiggins placed the ball on the free throw line where Bryant scored to pass Michael Jordan for third place on the career scoring list on Dec. 14, 2014, at Target Center.

Minnesota hit 10 of its first 15 3-point attempts and shot 14 for 23 from 3 in the first half. That set a franchise record for 3s in a half and helped the Timberwolves to a 68-50 halftime lead.

The Timberwolves honored Bryant prior to tipoff with words from Towns, a video tribute and a moment of silence. Towns wore No. 24 and Covington wore No. 8 while being introduced as part of the starting lineup to honor Bryant. They donned their regular Nos. 32 and 33 before the opening tip.

LeBron James on Kobe Bryant: ‘I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!’

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Often on social issues (or just because it’s Taco Tuesday), LeBron James can be quick to post on social media.

With the death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others — in a tragic helicopter accident, it took LeBron some time. LeBron and Kobe were close, they won Gold Medals together and competed against each other at the highest levels of the game. There became close, even more so in the past couple of years when LeBron came West and joined the Lakers. LeBron got to know Kobe’s family — when Gianna was at a recent Lakers game, LeBron was asking her about her fadeaway (which looked a lot like her dad’s).

Understandably, it took a grieving LeBron some time to comment on what happened, but Monday night he issued his first public statement on the passing of Kobe through an Instagram post.

View this post on Instagram

I’m Not Ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn’t think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have. WTF!! I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! 😢😢😢😢💔. Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here! There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!! #Mamba4Life❤️🙏🏾 #Gigi4Life❤️🙏🏾

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

There’s nothing else to say.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook both sit for Rockets game vs. Utah

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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When going up against a Utah team that has won 14-of-15, and outscored teams by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, an opponent needs to be at full strength.

The Houston Rockets will be without James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the game. The Rockets have lost 5-of-7 heading into this game.

Harden will miss his second consecutive game with a thigh bruise. The rest ultimately may be good for him, Harden has struggled of late and looked a little worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three.

Harden is not expected to miss extended time, the Rockets play again on Wednesday vs. the Trail Blazers.

For Westbrook, this is a planned rest game. The Rockets are on a back-to-back and Westbrook took on a heavy load in Denver Sunday with 32 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and also 10 turnovers in the Houston loss.